Category Archives: Poverty

The Other America is still out there and needs our undivided attention

I am, for the first time in my life, in South Dakota, traveling by car from the East Coast to the West Coast. I borrowed a book on tape for the trip: “The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America.” I’ve just come through Indiana, where RFK entered, and won – against so many odds – his first primary. The book details RFK’s presidential campaign journey through to his most significant primary wins, which happened on the same night in California and South Dakota.

I was too young to know about all this and so much more that was happening at the time. What is most striking about the story is not the politics, but the purpose of RFK’s campaign – spotlighting at every chance – the plight of poor children and families in America. A decade later, my own coming of age was fed by Michael Harrington’s, “The Other America,” Jonathan Kozol’s “Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools,” and Janet Fitchen’s “Poverty in Rural America.”

However, somewhere along the way, I feel as though my attention shifted away from the reality that there are still millions of children and families in American who are hungry – for food; for shelter; for protection; for literacy; for our steady and compassionate attention.

There have been too many distractions over too long a span to place a finger on where and when the blinders went on – welfare reform, 9/11, the boom and bust economy; bombardment by email, cell phones, Blackberries, MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter. Where did it begin and where will it end?

There are stories in the book about two days that RFK spent in South Dakota – most significantly at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and other accounts about meeting children in the Mississippi delta. Children were dying from poverty in both places, and countless others – one child died the day he was at Pine Ridge. Today, racing down I-90, forty years after RFK’s visit to Pine Ridge, I kept working through my mind, over and over, whether we could possibly still have that kind of poverty here and other places in America. Having organized hunger relief initiatives, and now literacy projects for over twenty years, I am hardly naive, but have admittedly lost my way.

The truth was revealed by a few thumb clicks on my Blackberry. I learned that places in America that breed desperation and despair are not without serious strife and controversy – that would be too much to expect. I should have known, but also learned today that the children and families who live in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation still face desperate poverty and an overwhelming array of afflictions.

So, what can we do? We can and will redouble our efforts to shine a bright spotlight on literacy needs in communities like this and to inspire champions like you to give undivided, compassionate attention to millions of children and families hungry to enjoy reading. If the enormity of the challenge gives us pause, we will persevere together – we will not be guided or dissuaded by the politics of the past or present, but by a purpose for the future – we will make a difference one child, one family, one magazine at a time. Thank you for your support.

Getting back to reading basics to rebuild a prosperous society

We have all heard “give a person a fish and you feed them for a day… teach them to fish and you feed them for life.” I say, “first you need to feed a person, so they have the strength and the dignity to learn how to fish… next, you need to teach them to read.”

Although I’ve been deeply involved in community and public policy and public service for many decades, I don’t usually comment on education or literacy policy. There are certainly more than enough experts and pundits, and we strive to be a literacy “big tent” – remaining non-partisan in our public service.

Our mission at is to leverage our talent and resources to facilitate the flow of reading materials from their varied and generous sources to new readers, not to reinvent the literacy wheels that are already well in motion or to overlap or to presume the needs of expert literacy agents.

However, the intensity of the current economic calamity and the impending dam burst of government and public financing and leadership necessary to reverse it and restore any semblance of balance drives me to underscore the obvious importance of getting back to and sticking with the basics, such as teaching children to read, and getting reading materials into homes with barren bookshelves.

The task will be that much more challenging, but no less important, as public service agents struggle to meet even more critical needs, like food for hungry children, families, and elderly neighbors. As consumers limit spending to necessities, and commerce slows, leading to more layoffs, the already frayed safety net of emergency food, shelter, and health care will be stretched to the breaking point.

If literacy and reading skills are the most basic ingredient for success and productivity in every corner of society, then it’s too easy, but terribly painful now to ask why so many children and adults in the U.S. and around the world cannot read well enough. Even with so much riding on the wave of a digital economy, the fastest growing e-commerce opportunities are around text messaging. No matter how many pages the internet grows to, no matter how many books Google digitizes, no matter how many magazines are available on the Kindle, not one can be read by a child or an adult unable to read.

Join our mission to feed children and families hungry to read and succeed.

Dream things that never were and say why not

I was recently asked if the Magazine Publishers Family Literacy Project was a person, who would it be?

I choose Robert Kennedy whose inspiration is a driving force for generations to come. It is a humanitarian choice about what he symbolizes as a person, not a partisan or politician, as so eloquently voiced by his brother Senator Edward Kennedy:

My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life, to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.

Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world.

As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him:

Some see things as they are and say why.
I dream things that never were and say why not.

This is the essence of our relentless campaign to mobilize citizens, businesses, organizations, and schools, and other literacy champions to find and to feed the children and families hungry to read and succeed in their and our communities… to get magazines into the hands, homes, and hearts of our neighbors who what to learn and love to read.

Why Johnny's mom and dad can't read

More than 85 million adults in the U.S. have low or very low literacy skills. These adults were once children who did not get the chance to learn how to read. In schools today, 1 in 3 children overall lack basic reading skills, with 2 in 3 falling short of reading proficiency. The disparity between children in poverty and their better off peers is even larger. When those who qualify for the Federal Free and Reduced Price Lunch program are considered, which includes children in families with incomes up to twice the national poverty rate, half of these children lack basic reading skills and only 1 in 6 reads at a proficient level. A child cannot do well in any school subject or in life without learning how to read. An illiterate adult cannot read a job application or a cereal box. Help us put magazines into the hands, homes and hearts of children and families learning to reading.

A child hungry to read is a child lost

“I wanna go to school so bad. I wanna read,” Ivan said excitedly on the first day of school.

ABC News: Waiting on the World to Change

View this compelling ABC News story on poverty in America: Waiting on the World to Change

Ivan Prays for a Superman to Find Him a Home.

In a park, the “20/20” team met Ivan Stevens; his mother, Precious; and his little brother, Imere. Sometimes they spent the whole day dirty, hungry and homeless, with no place to go.

The owner of an illegal boarding house occasionally gave them a place to sleep. He padlocked the refrigerator to keep them from taking food, and all three of them slept on one chair, surrounded by clutter and roaches.

Ivan wished he could be Superman and fly on someone’s back to find his family a home. “Superman” had also heard of kindergarten.

NPR : Diane Sawyer Special Examines Poverty in N.J.

NPR : Diane Sawyer Special Examines Poverty in N.J.

January 26, 2007 · Michel Martin talks to Diane Sawyer about an ABC special on poverty in Camden, N.J. The program, called Waiting on the World to Change